Paul Manning lost his wife, Diane, the love of his life, suddenly, due to complications following childbirth. Left alone with four-year-old twin boys and a newborn baby girl to raise, the grieving widower is barely keeping his head above water with the cooking, cleaning, and childcare while working a full-time job as a journalist. Paul and his sister-in-law, Leah Baker, bond over their shared loss. Diane was Leah's best friend, and now her children are the only family she has left. When she sees the predicament Paul is facing, Leah willingly quits her job as a teacher to move in with him and the kids to help out. She only intended for it to be a temporary arrangement, but living in such close proximity, the pair eventually find themselves developing feelings for one another. When he realizes she has no health insurance and she realizes that she could never leave the children after becoming such an important part of their lives, they agree to a marriage of convenience. Despite them sharing a bed and acting like a normal married couple, Leah doesn't believe Paul could ever love her in the same way he loved her sister. Diane was always the golden child, while Leah was the plain Jane bookworm, so how could he care for her as much? After working through some initial guilt and confusion over his growing feelings for Leah, Paul knows he wants to give her his heart, but after so many missteps and miscommunications how can he ever convince her of the sincerity of his love?
Stand-In Wife is another gentle contemporary romance in Debbie Macomber's Those Manning Men series. As with the other Manning books so far, this novel didn't have a very involved plotline, but overall, it was sweet and enjoyable. In this one, Paul Manning is suddenly widowed when his wife dies of complications following childbirth. She leaves him with young twin sons and a newborn baby girl to raise. With the multiples stresses of child care, home care, his job, and grieving, Paul is barely keeping his head above water, until his dead wife's sister steps in to help out. With them living in the same house together, unexpected feelings begin to surface, leading to a marriage of convenience and much, much more.
Paul is a man at loose ends. He's grieving for the loss of his wife, but at the same time, doesn't have the luxury of taking time to really grieve with three young children to care for. He and his sister-in-law, Leah, bond over their shared loss. When she offers to move in with them, Paul appreciates her help, but his sense of pride sometimes gets in the way. I think it makes him feel rather inadequate as both a man and as a parent that he can't do it all himself. It was kind of amusing that when Paul started having confusing feelings toward Leah, he pushed her toward Rob, a guy she'd only casually dated, but then he experienced unfamiliar jealous feelings when the pair actually went out. Soon his parents convince them to marry, because of Leah having no health insurance and the children, especially baby Kelsey, viewing her as their mother. Of course, by then, Paul knows he's falling for Leah; he just doesn't fully understand the extent of his feelings until faced with the fear of losing her when she thinks she might be pregnant. Even then, he, unfortunately, doesn't go about expressing those feelings in a clear and healthy way. It's not until the end that he figures everything out and is able to tell her how he really feels in a way that she understands.
Leah was tremendously selfless to give up her teaching job to move in with Paul and take care of the kids until they're older and in school. Her sister was her only family, so Leah loves and misses her deeply. With her sister gone, Leah sees this as an opportunity to stay close to the kids, who are now the only family she has left, as well as a way to fulfill a "promise" she made to Diane when her sister appeared to her in a dream the night she died. Leah goes into it believing this to be a temporary arrangement, but when she starts having feelings for Paul and realizes she would never be able to leave the children, accepting his marriage proposal isn't a difficult choice. Still, she believes it to be little more than a marriage of convenience, because she thinks Paul could never truly love her the way he loved her sister. They're just too different. Diane was the beautiful, vivacious one, while Leah was the shy, bookish, plain Jane. Although Leah always loved her sister and never blamed or envied her, their mother always treated Diane differently, like she was the golden child, while Leah was only second-best. This still makes her feel inadequate in more ways than one, especially when she misunderstands some of Paul's words and actions. Then Leah begins, for the first time in her life, to envy Diane even though she's dead. It takes a long time for Leah to finally realize that Paul loves her every bit as much as he did Diane, but in a different way.
Things get rolling for these two when they share a passionate kiss. Both are rocked to the core but afraid to admit it, which unfortunately leads to them reading things into the other's reactions that aren't entirely true. They have an almost impossible time communicating how they really feel, because they are both confused by their emotions. Paul is still in love with his dead wife and feeling guilty for loving another woman too. It doesn't help matters that the woman in question is his wife's sister. At the same time, he thinks she was repulsed by his kiss, when of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Leah loved every minute of it but has trouble believing Paul could be attracted to her after being in love with her gorgeous, outgoing sister. As a result, they spend a lot of time around each other walking on egg shells. This lasts throughout most of the book, with the primary conflict being various misunderstandings, based on miscommunication, lack of communication, and misperceptions. This isn't my favorite form of conflict, but it seems to be par for the course in all of Debbie Macomber's books I've read so far. It wasn't too bad here, because at least, I understood most of the time where they were coming from. However, it could sometimes be a little frustrating that they didn't communicate better.
Stand-In Wife brings back Paul's brother, Rich and his wife, Jamie (Marriage of Inconvenience). We get to see the happy couple and their growing family a little ways down the road from their book. The last Manning sibling standing, Jason, becomes a sounding board for Paul and has some surprisingly good advice for someone who's never been married. This carefree bachelor becomes the hero of the next book, Bride on the Loose. Overall, Stand-In Wife was a light and easy, but enjoyable read that has left me looking forward to seeing what's in store for Jason. Stand-In Wife was originally published as a stand-alone novel in the Silhouette Special Edition line, and was later reprinted in the single-author anthology The Manning Brides along with the first book of the series.
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